Last year, Arizona's defense, led by linebacker Scooby Wright, came into Rice-Eccles and dominated, allowing the Utes only 10 points in the driving rain. This weekend, the outlook is decidedly more sunny both literally and figuratively for the Utah offense. The 2015 Wildcat defense bears little resemblance to last year's unit. Injuries have taken their toll on the linebacking group, including Wright, who is out for the remainder of the season.
The Wildcat defense is coordinated by long time friend of Rich Rodriguez, and former West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. Casteel runs a 3-3-5 odd stack defense at Arizona just like he did at West Virginia. The 3-3-5 scheme is unusual, relying on only three down lineman to take on blockers, with the hopes of creating gaps for the linebackers and defensive backs to shoot through. In this respect, it is similar to the 3-4 defense which teams like Stanford, UCLA and Washington utilize successfully. In the 3-3-5 however, instead of four linebackers, the Wildcats play only three linebackers, adding an extra safety and substituting size for speed and versatility. In theory this strategy can work, but when your linebacking corps is missing it's best player and your defensive lineman are consistently being pushed off the ball at the line of scrimmage by the opposing team, you are left with this year's Arizona defense. Needless to say...It isn't good.
The three starting down lineman for Arizona are redshirt senior defensive end Reggie Gilbert at 6-4 262 lbs., junior nose tackle Sani Fuimaono at 6-1 288 lbs. and sophomore defensive tackle Bruno Luca at 6-4 264 lbs. The first thing that stands out is the size of Fuimaono, while 6-1 288 is a decent size for a college defensive tackle, in a three down set where the nose tackle is essentially supposed to eat space and take on multiple blockers, Fuimaono seems a little light. In comparison, Washington, Utah's opponent last week, has three nose tackles they rotate throughout the course of the game all well over 300 lbs.
The defensive line for Arizona has really struggled to get off blocks this season and has not generated much of a pass rush as a result. Against Pac-12 opponents, the Wildcats have recorded 13 sacks in seven games, a little less than two sacks a game. They have 19 sacks total this year which ranks them ninth in the Pac-12. They are also ninth in conference in tackles for a loss with 52 for the season.
With the loss of Scooby, the linebacking group has been a mess for Arizona, with a revolving door at some of the starting positions. 6-3 221lb. junior Jake Matthews seems to have stepped up and taken control of the middle linebacker position. He has been the leader for this group in Wright's absence, with 43 tackles and 1.5 sacks on the season. 6-3 230 lb. DeAndre Miller will help out on the strong side for the Wildcats defense with 35 tackles and a sack on the season. 6-1- 210 Paul Magloire is the weakside starting linbacker and Sir Thomas Jackson at 6-2 222 lbs. will see some time as well.
In a defense that is designed for the linebackers to make plays, this group has been rather unproductive. Combined, the linebacking group has 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble and no interceptions over the entire season. The linebackers are a bit undersized, and have struggled to get past offensive lineman this season, often giving up more than 100 lbs to the opposing player they are trying to shed. The coaching staff at Arizona knows this is a problem and is desperately trying to recruit more size and skill at the position for 2016. For this year however, it appears the Wildcats are stuck with what they've got. While Matthews has done a good job in the role thrust upon him, there isn't a lot of talent at the position this year for Arizona.
The five person secondary consists of two starting cornerbacks, a free safety, a "spur" and a "bandit." The spur and bandit positions are essentially a hybrid linebacker/safety position that allows the defense to bring extra guys into the box if needed but that can also drop back into coverage. Senior Will Parks, is the starting "spur" and he leads the team in tackles with 59, passes broken up with seven, and is second on the team with 4.5 tackles for a loss. At 6-1 194 lbs. Parks is built more like a safety than a linebacker but has made his presence felt for the Wildcats. Th othe hybrid position, the "bandit" is manned by redshirt junior Tellas Jones. At 6-0 189 lbs., Jones has been another solid contributor for the defense, leading the team in tackles for a loss with 4.5, to go with 44 total tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
DeVonte' Neal has had the right cornerback position locked down pretty much all season with four pass breakups, 49 tackles and an interception. The left cornerback position has seen a rotation of players with Cam Denson starting the beginning portion of the year and Jarvis McCall starting against USC last week. On Saturday's game, Arizona has Jace Whittaker listed as the starting right cornerback however. Whittaker is just a freshman but has appeared in all ten games this year for Arizona. He has 23 tackles and four pass breakups. Both Whittaker and Neal are only 5-10 which should provide Tyrone Smith and Kenneth Scott with some favorable match ups on the outside.
The numbers really tell the story. Arizona is ranked 9th in conference in rushing yards allowed, 12th in rushing touchdowns allowed, 11th in passing yards allowed, 10th in opponents completion percentage, 11th in passing touchdowns allowed, 11th in points per game allowed, and dead last in total touchdowns allowed with 45. They give 4.37 yards per rush and allow 34.6 points per game.
They are last in the Pac-12 in defending against 3rd down conversions, allowing opponents to convert 46.58% of the time. If Utah finds themselves in fourth and short on Saturday, they should go for it, with Arizona allowing opponents to convert on fourth down 63.64% of the time. In the red zone the Wildcats are terrible, allowing opponents to get points 95.45% of the time, a touchdown 77.27% of the time. The Utes also happen to have the best red zone scoring percentage in the Pac-12, scoring 96.77% of the time.
A quick look at this defense and it's hard to believe this is the same program that shut down Utah at home last year. This defense is in disarray and despite a good effort against USC last week, they still surrendered 38 points. For a Utah offense that can struggle at times, Arizona should be just what the doctor ordered. The Wildcats are undersized and less athletic than Utah in almost every matchup on defense. Devontae Booker should have no problem running against the Wildcat front and with a minimal pass rush, Wilson should have plenty of time in the pocket to throw. Arizona's defense ranks similarly to Oregon's, only lacks some of the Duck's individual talent. If Utah can put up a similar offensive performance as they did in Eugene, Arizona is in trouble.